[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 47: Taking it Easy

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I “slept in” til about 7am or so before getting ready and going down to the common area to eat breakfast.

I got to chat with the German henro a little more, as well as meet the owner’s 2-year-old son, Kotaro. He showed us some of his books and his half-eaten bowl of breakfast and was just a super cute bundle of energy. Eventually, though, I finished my meal and had to go. I had temples to visit.

I took the train to Yajuro Station, the closest one to Temple 85, Yakuriji. As I sat on the train, I realized I forgot my camera in my jacket pocket, and my jacket was hanging on the wall next to my bed in the guesthouse. I figured cell phone pictures would have to do for today. I made the decision to leave Temple 87 for tomorrow due to having forgotten my camera. I would have to swing by there tomorrow anyway to get to Temple 88.

Anyway, Yakuriji also sits on a little mountain but it features a little cable car that ferries people back and forth along the last kilometer or so, the steepest section. Of course, you can walk all the way to the temple if you want.

I did not want to. It still required a gentle uphill walk to get to the cable car station and my left knee was already starting to protest.

I paid for a one-way fare, half price because I held a foreign passport. I considered buying a return ticket but the henro route to the next temple was on the other side of the mountain. If I took the cable car back down, I still had a downhill walk and I would have to circle around the base of the mountain. So one-way trip it was.

When I boarded the cable car, I instantly became glad I took it, seeing how steep it was. The music they played was probably supposed to be cheery and relaxing but it sounded like it was being played from one of those old record players with a tinny sort of sound quality. It was weird and a bit creepy.

I quite liked Yakuriji’s grounds, which were small but spread out. As a result, it didn’t feel crowded, even with other henro or tourists around. I made my usual rounds and then headed down the mountain.

It was slow going and my left knee did not enjoy it one bit. The road was steep (21% grade for a good portion of it) and I had to stop twice due to shooting pains in my knee. I also realized that I hadn’t packed the ibuprofen I had bought yesterday. Oops. I would have to go without until I got back to the guesthouse.

When I returned to flat ground, i was intensely relieved. I knew the next temple was not a mountain temple and it was flat terrain all the way there.

Since it was only around 11am and I had only one more temple to visit, I walked slowly. There was no point in rushing and pushing my left knee harder than I needed to. I needed to save it for tomorrow, which would be much more difficult.

I stopped at a Gusto restaurant near Temple 86 for lunch. I was strangely hungry and ordered a large meal of pizza and fries. I nearly finished it!

I then made my way over to Trmple 86, Shidoji. Even though the paths were a bit overgrown, I liked I for some reason. An elderly lady who looked to be taking a break from sweeping the grounds ran up to me and offered me a little paper packet as osettai. I didn’t open it, feeling it would be rude (although I would later find it held two pieces of candy), but I did write out an osamefuda for her. Like a lot of other people, she asked where I was from and looked at my osamefuda curiously.

I did my usual rounds but the candle holders weren’t enclosed, so the wind kept blowing out any lit candles. Normally, candles burn until all the wax melts off, allowing someone else to place their own candle there. Most candles are very small and don’t take long to melt away. However, I had to laugh a little when the candle holder at the Daishi Hall was full of still-intact candles whose flames were blown out by wind.

As I prayed for a safe journey tomorrow, I could overhear the same elderly lady handing out osettai packets to other henro passing through. Again, I was amazed at how dedicated some locals were to supporting henro in any way they could.

Before I left to get my book stamped, another elderly lady stopped me and asked me all the usual questions and Showed me the osamefuda I had given to the other lady. I guessed they were friends and worked together to give osettai to henro. As with a lot of people who stopped to chat, they seemed curious about me, being a henro from Canada.

After answering her questions to the best of my ability, she wished me well. I went to get me book stamped.

Again, upon hearing my accented Japanese, the lady at the stamp office asked where I was from. Again, she was surprised I was from Canada and gave me a little henro pin as osettai. I took it gratefully and gave her two pieces of candy, one for her and one for the man also working at the stamp office.

With that done, I headed to the train station and took the train back to central Takamatsu, and once more, indulged in a drink from Starbucks.

I had been chatting with my henro friend, Alana. She said it probably took her between 4 and 5 hours to get from Temple 87 to 88. Basically, it was too short a distance to stop at the minshuku near Temple 88, but the ryokan just past Temple 88 was fully booked and the next lodging or train station was an additional ~20km. I decided to take the bus back to Shido Station from Temple 88 and take the train all the way to Tokushima, and promptly booked a hotel near Tokushima Station.

I then made hostel bookings for Kyoto and Osaka to fill the rest of the time I had left in Japan (or rather, most of it; my final night would be at Mt. Koya, to thank Kobo Daishi for a successful pilgrimage). April is tourist high season so it was slim pickings on such short notice, so I wanted to reserve beds ASAP.

With those things done and out of the way, I returned to the guesthouse to do some laundry, have dinner at the nearby unagi restaurant, and settle in for the night.

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[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 46: Rain Check in Takamatsu

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My original plan was to take today to visit as many temples around Takamatsu as I could, then use the next day to sightsee or rest. However, the weather forecast called for heavy rain all day, so I made the decision to take today off and then see temples the day after, which was supposed to have better weather.

So I took my time waking up, enjoying the sleep in. I had woken up several times throughout the night and still had a raging migraine that had started yesterday, either from the heat or the change in atmospheric pressure with the switch over from intense sun to rain. The German henro was also sleeping in the dorm room and also seemed to be having a late morning.

 I made myself get out of bed around 8:30am and slowly got ready, then made my way down to the common area to eat the simple breakfast I had bought yesterday (mango yogurt, a banana, and a can of cold cafe latte). The Canadian couple and the German henro were also there eating breakfast and we discussed our plans for the day. The Canadian couple were checking out and moving on to Kurashiki. The German henro had also decided to take the day off after a hard day yesterday and would be sightseeing around the city.

It hadn’t started raining yet so I made the decision to check out Temple 84, Yashimaji. After that, I would stop there and take the rest of the day off, as the rain would likely have started by then.

I bid goodbye to my fellow Canadians and wished the henro a good day, then walked over to Yashimaji. The hostel is quite close to the henro route, so it didn’t take me long to find the little red arrows that pointed the way.

As I walked down the road, I got closer and closer to a tall mountain/plateau. Sure enough, that was exactly what I would be walking up. It hadn’t looked very tall in my guidebook, but I guess everything looks small compared to Unpenji, even if it is objectively tall. A quick check confirmed that the temple sat at an elevation of 283m.

The road became an incline and I quickly worked up a sweat (again). An elderly walking henro was also making his way up. When we both stopped to catch our breaths and wipe sweat from our faces, we chatted a bit and then resumed our slow ascent. We passed by numerous other people along the slope, seemingly out for a stroll. Amazing.

My walking partner seemed to be a quiet and kind man. He stopped at every Buddhist statue to bow and he was worried that I hadn’t brought water or lunch with me (although I assured him that I would be fine and would be stopping after Yashimaji).

The path up to Temple 84 was more difficult than I had anticipated. It was a constant uphill path, so our legs were constantly working hard.

I eventually got maybe 50m ahead of my companion and was first to spot the Niomon gate. I encouraged the elderly henro to finish the last ~100m because we had finally made it!

By the time we got to the temple, it was gently raining. I realized I had forgotten my candles and incense in my backpack back at the hostel, so it didn’t take me long at all to make my rounds. Before I left, I ran to my walking companion for the morning and gave him a few pieces of candy as osettai. I had enjoyed his quiet but warm company for the hour we had walked together. In return, he gave me ¥150 and told me to use it to buy some juice or something to drink. I thanked him and we parted ways.

I made my way back down the same path. My knees were feeling the strain. In an effort to gauge their health (and partly because I had underestimated the climb to Temple 84), I hadn’t taken any medication and I hadn’t worn my compression bandages. Turns out I still needed them. By the time I got to the base of the mountain, my knees were feeling achy.

I took the Kotoden train back to central Takamatsu and found myself in a mall attached to Kawaramachi Station. I found the restaurant floor and had some omurice (omelette rice) at a cafe. I wandered around a bit more before going outside to check out the covered shopping arcade. It was still raining gently so it was a nice way to pass the time.

I picked up a few needed items, like more ibuprofen, inserts for my shoes (as any cushioning it had at this point was likely gone), and some oil blotting paper for my face (as the humid weather was not really helping things).

With that done, I found a Starbucks and enjoyed. Small familiar comforts were amazing where I could find them. They had two seasonal frappaccinos for sale (classic tea and American cherry pie) and I chose the tea frapp. I loved it and wondered why Starbucks in Canada didn’t do seasonal frapps as often.

After, it was about 3pm and I decided to return to the guesthouse. Although it was only one station away, I took the train to save my knee the exertion, even though it was feeling better after some rest (and no mountains).

I picked up some food from the nearby convenience store on the way. The rain was supposed to come down harder by evening so I wanted to get food before that. Sure enough, as I exited the 7-11, the gentle rain had become a downpour. I saw two young school girls without umbrellas hurrying down the sidewalk, getting soaked. I zipped up my coat and pulled up the hood, happy that it was waterproof, and returned to the guesthouse.

The guesthouse was much quieter tonight with less guests, probably because it was no longer the weekend. I ate dinner alone in the common area and tried to plan out the next couple of days. I sent off a message to Alana to ask her advice. The ryokan a little past Temple 88 was fully booked.

As I waited, I flipped through my stamp book. Between the beautiful images and the sound of rain outside, I was a bit melancholic. As I flipped through different stamped pages, I became flooded with memories. I had met so many people, seen so many things, and experienced so much. I remembered starting out this journey and thinking how difficult it would be to fill the pages of my book, but there it was, almost full now. Just four more to go. And to think, I nearly gave up so many times.

I thought about all the great people I had met. Where were they now? Did Jack, Saito-san, Fong, Michael, Tommy, or any of the others finish? Did they give up or were they still in the trail somewhere?

I couldn’t finish my meal. It didn’t taste good, so threw most of it out and ate my peaches in gelatin for dessert instead. It was more satisfying.

With the thoughts of finishing the pilgrimage soon, I showered and got ready for bed.

[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 45: Easter Sunday

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I let myself sleep until about 6am. A couple of my other roommates were up and getting ready, making it difficult to snooze, but in the end, it was for the best, anyway. Maybe it was Kobo Daishi’s way of getting me up and moving.

I quickly got ready and packed up my things. The cyclist henro was trying to find something for his bike and I did my best to help him search, but I had a train to catch. He looked genuinely worried about losing it and I felt bad, but he waved me off and insisted I get going.
I took the next train to Yasoba Station. Technically, I had left off further east at Kokubu Station near temple 80, but the route from Temple 79 to 81 was a bit longer but required less backtracking through mountains, something my knees were sure to appreciate. The approach from Temple 80 to 81 was also noted to be quite steep and if I could avoid that section, all the better.

The route, when I arrived there, was unfortunately poorly marked. For the first time in a while, I had to find my way using my guidebook map rather than relying on the ever-present route markers and arrows. I think until I reached the base of the mountain, I only saw two henro stickers and one stone route marker, probably a record low. Even a Japanese walking henro had to stop at a Family Mart to ask for directions. At one point, a couple of locals had to point me in the right direction. It was very confusing.

Once I reached the road up to the plateau, it was much more straight forward. The road was nice and gentle, although it was already quite warm and I worked up a sweat yet again.

I stopped at a rest hut. I took out the hachimaki I had won at the Awa Odori Kaikan so many weeks ago in Tokushima and tied it around my head for the first time. It would both absorb sweat and provide cushioning for my skin from the hard frame inside the hat.

I stayed at the rest hut long enough to cool down and then continued on up a trail that quickly turned into a very, very long set of stairs. Yesterday, I had gone up the 700+ steps to Konpira’s main shrine and had no difficulties with it. These stairs were steeper and I had my backpack strapped to my back this time. I really felt the additional weight and was forced to climb the stairs slowly.

When I made it to Shiromineji, Temple 81, by about 10:15am. As soon as I got there, I put down my pack and rested, taking a few minutes to finish my bottle of water. Then I made my usual rounds.

The route between temples 81 and 82 was pretty much all mountain trail. Or rather, plateau trails, as both temples are located on what’s called Goshikidai Plateau. It is known for its five peaks, all named different colors, that are said to have been named by Kobo Daishi himself. The trails were a bit muddy in a handful of places but overall, it was a nice walk and it was nice to be under the shade of the trees.

The last little climb before the descent to Temple 82, Negoroji, was a bit strenuous, especially in the heat (sweat was pouring from my face), but when I got to the top, I was grateful to be going down.

I reached a road and a little park where families were having hanami picnics. It was about 11:30 by this point so I stopped at a rest hut there to eat the onigiri I had bought earlier in the morning. A little girl was walking around a little dog with what looked like her grandmother and she wished me well. Cute!

After lunch, I continued on and reached Negoroji. Of course it would feature…yup, more stairs. I made my way down a set of stairs then up two flights of stairs (seriously, who designed that?!) to the main hall and the Daishi hall. Again, I made my usual rounds and got my book stamped.

As I was leaving, an older female henro greeted me so I greeted her back. As usual, upon hearing my accented Japanese, she asked where I was from. She (like everyone) was surprised I was from Canada and I got a whole slew of other questions, plus a request to take my picture. She then handed me a whole ¥1000 as osettai. I felt bad taking money, especially that much, but she insisted I take it. I slipped it in my purse and vowed to perhaps donate it, either spending it for another henro or donating it to a temple or something.

She told me that she was 82 and she and her daughter were doing the pilgrimage by car for her grandson, who was starting university (all of this is assuming I understood her correctly, though).

After I used the nearby restroom, the elderly woman caught up to me and asked where I was going next. I told her I would be heading to Temple 83. She said that they were also going there and offered to give me a ride. It was already aboua 1pm and Temple 83 was some 13km away with the first few kilometers spent getting off the plateau. And it was still blazing hot.

So I accepted the offer and enjoyed a wonderful air conditioned car ride to the next temple, Ichinomiyaji. They were both really sweet and the elderly grandma was really talkative (and did her best to speak slowly and clearly for me, as she only spoke Japanese) and asked me many questions.

When we got there, we went our separate ways. They went through the full prayer process at each hall, whereas I did not, so I naturally finished much more quickly. We took some pictures, I gave them an osamefuda (and they also gave me theirs), and they apologized for not being able to take me further as they were driving back home after this temple. I told them not to worry and tried to convey my gratitude as best I could with my limited Japanese. They got me to the next temple in about half an hour for a distance that would have taken me three or four hours if I had walked.

My original plan had been to take the train into Takamatsu after visiting Ichinomiyaji, but as I had saved a significant amount of time from hitching a ride, I decided to walk back.

I ended up catching up with another walking henro I had seen a few other times in the past. He had a slow walking pace but always managed to get ahead of me because of my rest days. He figured he would be done the pilgrimage in two days, which sounded right. I told him I would take three, with one day budgeted as a rest/sightseeing day in Takamatsu.

I ended up outpacing him again and made my way to my guesthouse in Takamatsu. Along the way, an older man stopped me and ran into his house to grab me a tiny little green drink. He said that he drank it every day and felt great because of it. I wasn’t sure how great it was but enjoyed the cold drink.

When I found Guesthouse Wakabaya, I checked in and immediately laid down in my bed, feeling completely exhausted from the sun and mountains.

I did force myself up a bit later to organize my things, shower, and walk two minutes to a nearby ramen stand. I ordered udon with beef in it and ate the whole thing. Then I went to the nearby 7-11 for some dessert and breakfast for tomorrow. For dessert, I bought a little mousse cake shaped like a rabbit (because it was Easter!). It was cute but not the greatest cake, though I guess that’s what I get for buying a cake from a convenience store.

Still, I think it was the first time I could not truly celebrate Easter. It’s just not a thing here in Japan since it’s not a Christian country.

I ate my dessert in the Guesthouse common area and ended up chatting with a couple from Canada. They were originally from Quebec but now live in southern Ontario. I had fun chatting with them about their experiences in Japan and Canada.

Meanwhile, another foreign henro had checked in. I had actually seen him briefly at Temple 82 but we hadn’t stopped to talk. He was from Germany and recognized me, too. However, as I was leaving to get ready for bed, he was just returning to the common area to eat. I bid everyone goodnight.

Before I went to sleep, I got a message fo m Alana, the Canadian henro. She said she had made it to Temple 88 but it was a difficult climb. I dreaded it but knew I would have to face it one way or another.

With that in mind, I turned in to sleep.

[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 44: Konpira-san

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I slept on and off throughout the night, which was a bit frustrating, but by morning, I was in such a deep sleep that I hadn’t even stirred when my roommate got up and left early in the morning. She had either been very quiet or I had been that tired.

I woke up around 8:30am and took my time getting ready. I wasn’t even out the door until almost 9:30am, although the train would not arrive until 9:54am.

I took the train a few stops over to Kotohira, home of the very famous and popular shrine, Kotohira-gu (but more commonly referred to as Konpira-san or Konpira Shrine). It is an old shrine that was once both Shinto and Buddhist but during the Meiji Restoration, became a Shinto shrine only, and as a result, has architectural elements of both a shrine and a temple.

Seafarers and fishermen have long been known to worship at the shrine and pay for safety while at sea. I suppose it goes to show how important the sea is to an island nation like Japan.

The shrine is also known for the long, arduous climb to get there. It is over 700 steps to the main shrine and another 500+ steps to the inner shrine.

It was another hot and sunny day so I was quick to shed my sweater. I made my way through the streets lined with shops and restaurants and began the ascent to the shrine along with the hundreds of other tourists. Many had bought little walking sticks and I realized I could have brought mine. Oh well.

As I went up the stairs, I was amazed to see how strong my body has become since I started this pilgrimage. The old me would have had to stop to catch my breath multiple times but I only stopped twice on my way to the main shrine. It helped that the stairs were not steep. My main problems were the heat and my knee.

I stopped for a long rest at the main shrine to sit and enjoy some shade. I had the stamina to keep going up to the inner shrine but was worried about how my knee would fare during the long descent down. So I decided to not go all the way to the top and to simply stop.

After taking some pictures, I slowly made my way back down to town. I stopped occasionally to rest my knee or to grab some shade. I saw a couple of other henro making their way up the stairs and they, too, were quick hopping up the stairs past many of the tourists.

When I got back to town, I found an udon restaurant and went in. Kagawa Prefecture is famous for its udon noodles so I figured it was time to try it. I ordered tempura udon and enjoyed.

It was still a little early to go back to the guesthouse so I found a place that sold ice cream. I learned that another Kagawa specialty is oiri, a type of ball-shaped sweet rice wafer that is light and practically melts in the mouth. It was traditionally given to brides but can now be found everywhere in tourist shops and as a topping for ice cream. I hadn’t expected them to be so light but I was not that enthusiastic about them. It was like eating air, I suppose.

Still, it was nice to eat something cold on a hot afternoon. Yesterday, Naoko had said that the weather felt more like May weather than April weather. I was glad I was not the only one who was feeling the heat!

I meandered around for a bit but then headed back to the train station to return to the guesthouse. I walked over to a convenience store and picked up some drinks and food for dinner, then headed back to the guesthouse.

I ended up taking a short nap then forced myself up to shower and have a bite to eat. Two American henro (two older ladies who were cousins) had also checked in. I learned they were mostly hitchhiking or taking public transportation to get around between temples. We chatted for a while over dinner (they ended up buying food at a supermarket).

A Japanese traveler who had come to see Kotohira and its famous kabuki theater shared my dorm room but could mostly only speak Japanese. Later, an older man who was cycling the pilgrimage also checked in. He knew a bit of English due to traveling in the US so we could communicate a bit. I learned that he had done the pilgrimage four times before and was doing it again in sections. He showed me his stamp book and, true enough, many of the pages had 4-5 stamps in them.

With it getting late, I excused myself and turned in for the night. I had another long day ahead of me tomorrow.

[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 43: Rust Bucket v2.0

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I slept really, really well. Part of the reason was because of my very comfortable bed. The other reason was because I was simply that tired. The last 3 days, I clocked 30-34km per day and climbed up a 900m mountain on one of those days. Despite the fact that I slept well, I still felt an all-encompassing exhaustion in my body and mind. Alana felt the same and the two of us were slow getting ready.

My plan today was to rent (for free!) one of the guesthouse bicycles for the day and make it as far as Temple 80, Kokubunji. The two temples after that went through mountain hiking trails. Besides, Kokubunji was already about 24km away and I would have to return to Zentsuji, too. Temple 80 would be the furthes I could manage.

Alana left first because she was going to walk and then camp a bit past Temple 80. She had a longer day ahead of her. We said our farewells, as we would not be seeing each other again on the henro trail, being so close to the end and with different deadlines. However, we hoped to meet again sometime in Canada.

I left around 8am, a bit later than I wanted but it took me a while to figure out the lock system on the bikes, which is directly on the back wheel, as well as put a bit more air into the tires. The last thing I needed was a flat tire 20+km from the guesthouse!

It was a rusty old thing with no gears, more meant for running short errands than cycling long distances. In honor of the rusty bike I rented three years ago on the Shimanami Kaido, I also nicknamed it Rust Bucket. Even still, it worked way better than the first Rust Bucket and that’s all that really mattered.

My first stop was Temple 76, Konzoji, which was practically next door. I made my usual rounds but didn’t stick around too long because two groups of tour bus henro were already there.

After, I stopped at a 7-11 to pick up something to eat for breakfast. Alana had pointed out yesterday that I barely ate anything, which was true. My stomach couldn’t tolerate large meals so I made a promise to myself to eat more frequently. Now that I was relying less on public transportation and was more active, I needed the calories pretty badly.

I ate and then made my way to Temple 77. It was a little more difficult to find my way on a bicycle. The walking route sometimes went off road where I could not cycle, so I had to find an alternate route on my map. At the same time, I couldn’t cycle and have my phone with GPS out at the same time what with all the traffic, pedestrians, and other cyclists to watch out for. It was certainly a new challenge for me.

At Temple 77, I did take my time there and took a break on a bench under some shade. A little souvenir shop just outside the temple was giving henro tea as osettai, which I took. It was another hot, sunny day and I needed to keep up with drinking fluids.

I cycled some more and started to feel the afternoon heat. I stopped again at a 7-11 on the way to buy another cold sports drink and some ice cream, both of which I consumed right away in a little patch of shade by the store. They helped marginally.

Temple 78 passed by uneventfully, as did Temple 79, although the latter was a bit confusing because it shared the same grounds as a shrine.

I was getting tired and my butt was starting to hurt where it sat on the hard bicycle seat, so I left the bike at the bicycle parking lot and took the train three stops over to Kokubu Station right near Temple 80, Kokubunji.

Kokubunji’s grounds were enormous and I took some time to explore them. I also came across one of the dirtiest toilets (well, more of an outhouse) I’ve ever encountered in Japan, although their sink had soap. Go figures.

I couldn’t believe that, with Temple 80 done, I only had 8 temples left to visit, plus Temple 1 (again) and Mt Koya.

With mixed feelings about that, I left the temple and found a nearby McDonald’s. at that point, it was about 2:30pm and I hadn’t had lunch yet. I ate but even McDonald’s was losing its charm. I was craving fresh fruits and vegetables and home cooked food.

When I finished and got back to Kokubu Dtation, I spotted a pair of foreign tourists trying to parse out the train timetable. They  were from New Zealand and had spent the last 6 days visiting some temples in Shikoku and were headed for Kotohira. I helped them figure out the trains and explained that I had been in Shikoku for a while now and had the trains pretty well figured out. They thanked me. It was a fair wait for the next train so we passed the time chatting.

When my train came, they thanked me again for my help and I wished them well for the rest of my trip.

I took the train back to Yasoba Station but by then, it was already past 4pm. I had written in the bike rental book that I would be back by around 4pm. Also, the sun was clearly going to start setting soon and I didn’t want to lose too much light; my bike was not fitted with any lights.

I looked up the fastest route back to the hostel and pedaled there as fast as I could. Unfortunately, Rust Bucket was a little too small for me so it was difficult to pedal efficiently. The other rental bike had been much too big for me, so I had opted for the slightly small one.

I got back to the hostel by 5:15 pm. When the owner asked me which temple I stopped at and I told her, she was surprised I had cycled that far. I didn’t tell her that I usually walk that far in a day (although I don’t usually have to backtrack). However, I did ask if I could do some laundry and she helped me work the washing machine.

I received a message from Alana. She was almost at a rest hut she could camp out in and had met an Australian cyclist henro who was doing the same thing. Alana, too, was tired out from the long walking days in the hot sun.

I also received a message from Naoko, who said she was going to pick me up for dinner at 6pm. I had forgotten it was Friday and we had promised to meet up for dinner. I showered quickly and, when the washing machine was done, I hung up my clothes to dry just as Naoko pulled up in her car.

Naoko took me to a Japanese BBQ restaurant. We ate a lot of meat and thank goodness Naoko was there because I would have had no idea what to order. The variety was amazing and everything we ordered was delicious (except for these weird cheese ball things).

Naoko said she had just started school againand was so far enjoying it. She said she had made it as far as Temple 48 and would try to continue the pilgrimage when she has time in the future.

At the end of the meal, Naoko insisted on paying for everything. I tried me best again to pay her back but she adamantly refuses and drove me back to the guesthouse.

We said our goodbyes and I turned in for the night.

[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 42: Two Canadian Henro

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It was a slow morning and I was sluggish waking up. The last three days or so had been long and hard, and my body just wanted to sleep and sleep and sleep.

But I had a hostel reservation to keep, so I had to make it as far as Zentsuji City. The plan was to base myself there for a few nights to see temples in the area, sightsee a bit, and rest.

I got ready, packed my things, and checked out by about 7:15am, then cut across to get to Temple 70. A cafe on the way was marked in my guidebook so I hoped to stop theee for some coffee and breakfast.

Unfortunately, the cafe was still closed when I got there. I remembered that in Japan, a lot of businesses don’t really open til late in the morning, usually around 10-11am. The concept of a cafe not being open early in the morning still confuses me. I was actually quite disappointed that the cafe was still closed because it seemed interesting, including having a statue of Jesus wearing sunglasses.

So, unfortunately, I had to buy breakfast at a nearby convenience store. Sigh.

I walked the rest of the way to Temple 70 but had to stop at one point to remove my jacket. It was only about 8am but the sun was beating down on me and I felt incredibly hot. Even after taking off my jacket, I was still sweating. I hoped the afternoon would not be much hotter!

As soon as I walked into the temple grounds, a lady who had been sweeping leaves rushed over to give me an osettai- a tiny baggy of treats with a little note inside. Of course, I could not read the note but I appreciated it all the same. I thanked her and, after a moment, wrote out an osamefuda, ran back to her, and gave it to her.

I made my usual rounds and got my book stamped. Alana, the Canadian henro, said she was on her way to temple 70 and asked if I wanted to wait. We were staying at the same guesthouse so I figured, sure, why not? I wasn’t in any rush.

Alana arrived about 15 minutes after. I used the time to literally chill out in the shade of a big tree (I even had to put my coat back on) and relax. She also made her rounds and then we headed out together.

Our first stop was a convenience store. Alana wanted coffee and I needed something to drink, too. We picked up some drinks and an ice cream each, enjoying the fantastically delicious cold treats on a hot sunny day.

We chatted constantly as we walked. It was great to finally be able to converse in my native English without worrying about a language barrier. Alana shared the same sentiment.

We also shared the same complaint about the hot sun. Typical Canadians – never happy with the weather!

When we got to Temple 71, Iyadaniji, we deflated a bit when we had to climb up a hill, and then deflated more when we saw an intimidating amount of stairs. There was a little shop at the base and the owner said it was 550 steps. Some other henro were relaxing on some benches and invited us to sit down. The shop owner treated us to some tea and half a banana each as osettai, which we gratefully took.

We passed the time answering the usual questions (like “Where in Canada are you from?”) and watching some birds eat some seeds the shop owner had left out for them. One henro managed to get a bird to take some seeds from his hand.

Eventually, though, we knew we had to go. We ascended the many steps to get to the main hall and the Daishi hall. My left knee complained again.

At the temple, we met another foreign henro, a 70-year-old lady from Barcelona. Her English was not great but she knew French. Alana’s French was pretty good, so the three of us had a conversation in a strange mix of English, French, and Japanese. When we got as far as the language barrier(s) would take us, we wished each other well and went our separate ways.

Once we were finished, we took a few minutes to eat more snacks. We both could not understand why so many Japanese products were individually wrapped. I had bought a package of pieces of smoked cheese and each piece was individually wrapped. Also, the cheese tasted horrible. I forced myself to eat most of it, mostly because I didn’t want to feel like I wasted money on it.

We trekked back down the hill. The trail wasn’t the best. There were lots of little tree roots trying to trip us and fallen stalks of bamboo we had to climb over so it slowed us down a bit.

Still, we outpaced the henro from Barcelona and made our way to Temple 72, Mandaraji. We quickly made our rounds, cognizant of the fact that we were running out of time (it was perhaps around 3pm by this point). Between chatting and the hot sun, our pace was perhaps a bit slower than usual. We had reservations near temple 76, so we had to make it to at least Temple 75 by about 4:30pm.

Luckily, Temple 73, Shussakaji, was practically right next to the previous temple, though a touch uphill. We enjoyed the views and took yet another short break to rehydrate at a little rest area surrounded by vending machines on the temple grounds.

Temple 74, Koyamaji, passed by quickly. We rushed a bit through it in order to get to Temple 75, Zentsuji, in good time. I had heard it was a large temple with many things to see, including a 90m dark tunnel to walk through, so we didn’t want to get there last minute.

We hurried to Zentsuji and it was indeed a massive temple. It is said to have been the birthplace of Kobo Daishi, so it is one of the most important temples in Shingon Buddhism, and it definitely looked the part.

We made our rounds but wanted to find the tunnel. Alana couldn’t find it on a map (it was all in Japanese, though) so I did my best to ask a temple staff member who was cleaning the cabinet where one lights an offertory candle. I couldn’t understand the majority of what she said but I did understand that it was closed for the day and we would have to return tomorrow to see it. I highly doubted either Alana nor I would be backtracking, but I thanked her anyway.

Instead, we wandered around the expansive grounds, talked to a couple of tourists from Australia, took pictures, then took a break on some benches to rest our tired feet and legs. 

Alana proposed dinner at an actual restaurant instead of convenience store and I readily agreed. We found a nearby Gusto and went in. I ordered a pizza(clearly Japanese style with edamame, shrimp, and ham on it; it was actually quite delicious) and Alana ordered spaghetti with tomato sauce (literally that’s all it was). Like Joyfull, it wasn’t gourmet food or anything, but it was a step up from convenience store food.

After dinner, I wanted to take the train to our hostel. It was only maybe 3km away but my left knee was acting up again. I had pushed it hard over the last few days. However, when we got to the station, we had just missed the train by seconds and the next one was ‘t for over half an hour. We decided to simply walk.

We found our way to our hostel, Mi Casa Su Casa, located right next to Konzoji Station (literally) and across the street from Temple 76, Konzoji, which would be the starting point for both of us tomorrow.

The owner instantly welcome us in and showed us around. The guesthouse is small but our beds were clean and very comfortable. After showering, chatting some more, and comparing our plans for the rest of the pilgrimage, we settled to sleep.

[The Shikoku Pilgrimage] Day 41: Unpenji

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Unpenji, along with Yokomineji, had been on my mind ever since I left Kochi Prefecture. They were two of the highest points in the pilgrimage and I dreaded them. After getting past Yokomineji, Unpenji was next, standing at an imposing 900+ meters.

I got up early again because I was so far from the main henro route. I was actually a little disoriented when I woke up. I had dreamed that I was back home and waking up in Japan, I was a bit confused for a few seconds. I had a moment of homesickness before henro business took over.

I got started at 6am and left an osamefuda and a couple pieces of candy for the Guesthouse owner with my key as thanks for his help with finding dinner last night. I really, really appreciated not eating convenience store food for once.

It took me about an hour to get out of town and get to the base of the mountain. After much debate, I decided to take the car route up the east side of the mountain instead of backtracking several kilometers to the trailhead (and the main henro route). It was longer but with the distance I would have had to backtrack to get to the main route, it worked out to be roughly the same, anyway. I also figured that, if I was going to walk about the same distance, I might as well be making progress up the mountain while I was at it.

I got to the base of the mountain around 7am and sure enough, it was pretty much all uphill. Because the road was made for cars, though, it usually wasn’t steep and the road had many hairpin turns. Still, about 20 minutes in, I was sweating and had to stop to take off my jacket.

The first part of the walk took me past cute little houses and farm fields, but after maybe 2km, it got isolated and the road smaller. I was surrounded by trees and not much else. Once in a while, there would be a break in the trees and I could see just how far up I had gone. Impressive as it was, I still knew I had higher to climb.

I forced myself to go at a slow, deliberate pace. The entire road course was something like 10 or 11km. There was no point using up all my energy in the first few kilometers. Maybe I had learned a thing or two from the old men henro – they went slow but steady. So I did, too.

I was alone most of the time except for the occasional car passing by, so I had my iPod on to keep my mind off the climb. At one point, though, I heard an animal, hidden in the trees, growling. I had no idea what it was but from that point on, I made sure to strike the ground hard with my walking staff, jingling the bell as I went. Sometimes, I even sang out loud to my music. I hoped that would warn off any wild animals nearby. I really did not want to have to end my pilgrimage because I was attacked by a monkey or something.

Around the 600m elevation mark, the road leveled off for a while. It was a welcome break and my pace naturally picked up a little.

The last 2km were an uphill battle again, though, but this time, it was almost a constant incline with no real flat sections. At that point, I had been on the mountain for about two hours and my legs were getting tired. I was sweating again.

At that point, I was also high enough in the mountain that I was getting into some low-hanging clouds. It made the surrounding forests quite spooky, like something out of a horror film. I will admit, it sped my steps just a bit.

Eventually, I rejoined the main henro route and the road leveled off again, and I found myself at the temple. Hallelujah!

I took some time to take it all in. I had been dreading getting to this temple, and there it was in front of me. I could breathe easy. The next several temples would be easy, sitting on flat terrain.

A henro I passed by and asked if I had walked the whole way up, and I confirmed that I had. He was visibly impressed and wished me well as he returned to the parking lot.

I had expected to get to Unpenji around 11am but found I had made it almost an hour before, a little after 10am. I used the extra time to take my time and wander around the temple grounds. The temple infamously has dozens, if not hundreds, of big statues, all different in appearance. They had so many varied poses and expressions and all were made with a ton of detail. I enjoyed looking at them.

I then returned to get my book stamped and also put my jacket back on. Up in the mountain, it was chilly and my sweat from the climb up was cooling me down, too.

A man who was obviously non-Japanese was having snack on a bench just in front of the stamp office so I stopped to chat. It turned out he was from Germany and mostly camped out. He had walked the entire pilgrimage so far and had been at it for less than a month! Color me impressed. He said he would often walk 30-40 per day. Amazing. At this point, roughly 30km a day was enough for me. However, he said he was way ahead of schedule and would be slowing down a bit.

We traded stories of our experiences so far and then I had to leave to find the ropeway. I still had about 20km to walk after getting off the ropeway and it was already 11am. I wished him well.

I found the ropeway station, paid for my ticket (discounted if you show a foreign passport, yay!), and bought a can of sweet coffee. I was still feeling a bit chilled despite the heater at the ropeway station. The temperature displayed outside showed it was only 6 degrees Celsius.

At 11:20, I boarded and was zipped down to the bottom of the mountain. The height was dizzying at times, but I was amazed at how far up I had managed to go in my own two feet (and with my backpack, too!).

After deboarding the ropeway gondola, I had yet another debate as to which route to take. The alternate route from the ropeway station in my book was about 11km to the next temple. Or I could cut across using a small road to rejoin the main henro route and eliminate maybe 4km of walking.

In the end, I chose to stick with the alternative route, even if it was longer. I didn’t want to get lost because I chose another path. I felt safe following the route markers and henro signs.

In the end, I still got a little lost. Thank goodness for Google Maps. Even still, it was a great little road that took me past more farms and orchards, as well as a tiny park that had cherry blossoms everywhere. Elderly folks having hanami picnics greeted me as I passed.

Despite the little detour, I still made it to Temple 67, Daikoji, in good time, a little before 2pm. I made my rounds and got my book stamped, as usual. I tried coaxing a cat I spotted to come to me, but it dutifully ignored me. Typical cat. I went to rest on a bench and rehydrate, as the sun had come out in full force and I had been sweating again. As I rested up, I spotted one of the monks picking up the cat and bringing it back inside the temple. It must have belonged to the temple, which would explain its collar.

After my break, I reluctantly picked up my pack again and got moving. My feet were getting sore but I still had a little more than 8km to go to the next temples (as both temples 68 and 69 share the same grounds), and if I kept up my pace, I would get there around 4:30. Temples close at 5pm, so I had a bit of flexibility but not much.

I made it there at 4:20pm. I rested on a bench for a few minutes, feeling completely spent, but forced myself to make my rounds so I could get my book stamped before they closed.

It was a bit confusing figuring out which hall was which and which belonged to which temple, but I think I managed it in the end. By now, I can recognize the kanji for the main hall and the Daishi Hall and I already knew how to read numbers, so that helped.

I got my two stamps at the same office and then rested some more. I had about a 2km walk back to my hotel and my feet were killing me. While I rested, I watched one car henro rush in at the last minute, cutting it close to closing time.

A bit before 5pm, I decided to go. Not having a deadline, though, I took my time. Somehow, going back always feel shorter than the first time going through.

On the way, I came across a non-Japanese young female henro with a huge pack. I greeted her in both Japanese and English and she asked if inunderstood English. I said, “I’m actually Canadian, so yeah!”

It turned out she was also from Canada, and we got chatting about our pilgrimages. It was great talking to someone in English again. We traded contact information and parted ways to find our lodgings for the night. I desperately needed a shower.

I found and checked into my hotel for the night. I had messaged Naoko earlier in the day, fulfilling my promise to notify her when I got to Unpenji. She called me via Facebook Messemger and we made plans to meet for dinner later in the week.

I lazed around for a bit before showering, then ate at the nearby Joyfull restaurant – not exactly fine dining but it was still a step up from convenience store food.

When I returned to my hotel room, I calculated that I had walked about 33km today, which includes my long walk up Unpenji. It was a long day for sure but I was glad to have done it!